Addressing the Learning-Earning Gap in College Classrooms

A year or so ago, I got this e-mail from a student:

“Professor Graham,

I am extremely conscerned [sic] after taking the first exam online because I didn’t even come close to finishing it on time and ended up with a 56 as a grade. I have attended every single class, paid attention, and felt like I understood the material so I don’t understand how this grade is possible for me. I am also conscerned [sic] because I only got a 50 on the 2nd post. This means my average is extremely low and in a class that I feel I have put a lot of effort into.”

This e-mail is illustrative of the two different “logics” that order the actions of students and professors.

Professors, by and large, organize their thoughts and actions based upon the logic of learning. Meaning, they understand the process of education to be one of inquiry, discovery, and intellectual growth.  According to this logic, the goal is to construct an environment that affords students the best opportunities to learn as much about the given topic as possible.  Success is measured qualitatively, through the type of questions asked and the amount of interest in the course.  The means through which a course is produced (the lesson plan) matter more than the ends of the course (the grades).  The question that must be answered: what did my students learn?

Students, by and large, organize their thoughts and actions based upon the logic of earning.  Meaning, they see the process of education not unlike that of a job, where tasks are completed and rewards are given based upon the completion of those tasks.  According to this logic, a student’s goal is to earn the highest grade possible.  Success is measured quantitatively, in grades.  The ends of the course (the grade) matter more than the means through which the course is produced (the lesson plan).  The question that must be answered: what is going to be on the test?

These two logics are often at odds, as one can earn without learning, and learn without earning.  In my opinion there is a “learning – earning” gap in higher education.

The student above has an earning logic, and using this logic, is justifiably worried.  She has followed the rules, been a “good student” and yet, she is not getting the results she expects.  She judges the ends of her efforts, the grades,  as being unsatisfactory.  While it would be nice to learn on her way to a satisfactory grade, the entire endeavor was not worth her time, and inherently unjust.

By contrast, I judge the situation and that student’s performance through a learning logic.  I take some justified pleasure in knowing that I was able to get a student to “attend every class” and “pay attention”.  I judge my efforts as being wholly satisfactory.  While it would be nice for every student to receive a satisfactory grade, the entire process was worthwhile, and the end result was just.

I’ve just presented two idealized thought processes.  Of course students want to learn and professors are aware that grades matter.  These two ideal types only function as a heuristic.

The reality is more complex.  A “good” professor organizes his class so that students can be successful – no matter their individual ability levels, while still finding ways to make the lecture more than just test prep.  A “good” student gets high marks, but also expresses interest in the material and racks up “participation points”.  “Bad” students are those who enter into the class thinking solely about the grade, and “bad” professors are those who are not attuned to the realities of students they are serving.

However the logics are organized, any course will be composed of an assortment of students each falling somewhere on the learning-earning scale – but in the aggregate closer to the earning pole, and a professor falling somewhere on the learning-earning scale, but closer to the learning pole. Thus, there is almost always a learning-earning gap in college classrooms.

I’ve been working on ways to bridge this gap using the digital environment.  Let me explain…


Sheldon, Frasier, and Putting Roots on STEMS

Over the past year I have worked my way through almost all of the episodes of the 90’s sitcom Frasier.  I owe it all to Netflix.  The show is still funny to me.  One of the reasons why the show was such a hit during its heyday, and why I like it now, is the comedy generated from the snootiness  of the Crane brothers – the titular character and his younger brother Niles.  They were ivy-league educated, made constant references to classical music and literature, and were always drinking sherry out of little tiny glasses that if I had their training I would know the name of.  A typical scenario: Frasier, a radio show host, has been pranked several times by a pair of shock jocks who work alongside him.  One one occasion they trick Frasier into singing on the radio.  Frasier says “two can play at that game” and attempts to settle the score by writing a monologue filled with references to Plato, Shakespeare, and God knows who else and reciting it in front of the shock jocks.   Of course this is ridiculous.  You cannot combat grown men who make a living getting people to fart on air with verbose quotes from Aristotle.  That’s why it’s funny.

I'm working my way through all the old episodes of Frasier.   Frasier is an egg-head, but a well adjusted one.

I’m working my way through all the old episodes of Frasier. Frasier is an egg-head, but a well adjusted one.

I’ve also caught a few episodes of  The Big Bang Theory, the current popular comedy about overeducated people being all awkward.  I like this show too, and when it is available on Netflix I’ll gobble it up.  But although Sheldon, Leonard, and the rest of the guys are all egg-heads like Frasier and Niles, the comedy derived from their nerdiness is a bit different.

The comedy generated from the Big Bang Theory  occurs because the characters, especially Sheldon, knows far too much about hard science.  A typical Sheldon comment:  “there should be a raisin to flake ratio in my cereal of 1 to 17 for maximum taste, the same ratio of black holes to quasars found in the Ardunas Galaxy, plutonium molecules to selenium molecules in a Star Trek stun gun…”.  But a lack of understanding of the softer arts of human relationships leads to trouble – “I am experiencing a biochemical reaction in my brain that is leading to some uncomfortable physiological reactions…you may call it…being horny.”  They are stereotypical nerds – right down to the way they dress and their clumsiness with women.

I wouldn't say that the egg-heads in the Big Bang Theory are well adjusted.  Maybe it is because they were STEM majors?

I wouldn’t say that the egg-heads in the Big Bang Theory are well adjusted. Maybe it is because they placed too much emphasis on STEM?


Frasier, on the other hand, has his awkward moments – a common joke is his complete ignorance of sporting events – but by and large you can imagine him fitting in quite well with the “people of average intelligence”.  He could take his knowledge of Shakespeare, Verdi, and Beckett and apply it to any situation that arises.

Thinking about these two shows made me think about our nation’s push to increase the number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates, and where we could be making some missteps.  Let me explain…


The Freedom to Profess

Academics find online education equal parts threatening (are we going to loose our jobs now?) and thrilling (wow, what a wonderful way to deliver course content).  Mostly though, it is thrilling.

We see online education as a way to provide education to non-traditional or disadvantaged students.  The MOOCs (massively open online courses) offered by Coursera are meant to provide students who are not at elite universities the chance to gain knowledge from some of the best professors in the country.  Hundreds of thousands of students from across the globe sign up for these classes.

Even in schools where the admission standards are not so steep, online courses can be beneficial.  Students with busy schedules or commuting difficulties can take more courses and move towards their degree much faster.

Online education is seen as liberating the student – the consumer of knowledge. By dissolving the barriers of time, location, and money, the digital environment has given students a kind of freedom to learn that they never had before.

What about the professor?  Is the professor in need of liberation?



School Reforms Need Reforming

Dale Russakoff’s article in the New Yorker entitled “Schooled” is about former Newark mayor Corey Booker, current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to transform Newark’s struggling school districts.  The article details the reforms proposed by an energetic Booker and a Republican governor who, while not popular in Democratic Newark endorsed the plan with a quip: “Heck, I got maybe six votes in Newark. Why not do the right thing?”  After becoming enthralled with Booker, Zuckerberg agreed to provide funding for the reforms to the tune of 100 million dollars.  There was great optimism at the outset.  But things quickly went downhill.

Millions of dollars were spent on consultants.  This riled the district personnel and the residents.  They were seen as carpetbaggers making a profit off of the district’s misery.  Russakoff quotes Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County: “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”

Moreover, a major component of the reforms was to close schools that were underperforming and open new charter schools in their place.  On the advice of the consulting firm Global Education Advisers, 11 low performing district schools were to be shuttered.  In their place would be several charter schools and themed public schools.  This created the most animus within the district.   Leading the outcry was former school principal, now newly elected mayor Ras Baraka:  “Co-location is more like colonization,” Russakoff quotes him as saying.

Before moving into the US senate, Booker appointed Cami Anderson as superintendent of the district.  Anderson would be the captain who would navigate the district through these changes.  Instead the combination of Anderson presiding over very unpopular initiatives and her off-putting management style, caused her to navigate her family away from Newark for fear of physical harm.

As of now, Anderson is still at the helm of a ship that is quickly taking on water.  Booker is in Washington.  Christie is posturing for a presidential run.  Zuckerberg it seems has moved on.  The reforms have not produced, as of yet, the gains in academic performance that were promised and students are still failing.  The people who have benefited the most from all this business were the consultants and Ras Baraka, who became Newark’s mayor in large part due to his spirited challenge to the reforms.


Booker, Christie, and Anderson - The Leaders of School Reforms in Newark (courtesy of NJ.Com)

Booker, Christie, and Anderson – The Leaders of School Reforms in Newark
(courtesy of NJ.Com)


I could’ve seen this coming.  The well meaning reforms in Newark suffered from the same flaw I’ve seen time and again.  There is little to no emphasis on the neighborhoods, families, and students.  We are spending far too much time tweaking the system without placing attention on those who are served by it.

I came to this conclusion in a roundabout way – through understanding how the Internet grew so quickly.